When we recently opened the first roll of 1970-vintage powder blue baseball uniform wool flannel it brought a smile to my face. Some of the first jerseys we made back in the 80s were reproductions of the 1969 Seattle Pilots road unis, personally dyed by me in my bathtub. The Bartells drug store in my Seattle neighborhood carried a shade of Rit dye that when applied to travel gray flannel arrived at the perfect baby blue used on uniforms in the late 1960s. (If you have one of those 1987-era bootleg Pilots jerseys you have a real collectors item).Most of the flannel era was admittedly fairly monochromatic – white for home and road for gray becoming standardized by the late 19th Century. There were a few exceptions, but most of the graphic thrills (such as they were) came about from lettering and trim designs, rather than fabric color.
Inevitably that decade of change – the 1960s – also brought some much-needed eye candy to the sedate world of baseball uniforms. No doubt television was a major factor, as well as expansion, which we will see. Kansas City Athletics owner Charlie Finley (innovator or crackpot, he was called both) unsurprisingly led the way. Unlike his idea for orange baseballs, this concept actually made it onto the field. The A’s burst into rival American League parks and living rooms across the country in1963 attired in striking gold vest-style jerseys and pants (the white shoes were added three years later). Curiously, the gold duds were only worn on the road, and the A’s stuck with home whites for the remainder of the flannel era.
The very next season the Chicago White Sox, perennial uniform experimenters, introduced the first powder blue uniform as an alternative to the traditional gray. The first jersey was rather unambitious, with a simple block “CHICAGO” arched across the chest, but in 1967 the club appeared with a sharply angled script “Chicago” across the chest and the words “WHITE SOX” inside the tail – still one of the classiest lettering designs of all time, in my opinion.
Ironically the Sox reverted to gray in 1969, just as the fun was beginning. Two expansion teams led the way. If the doomed Seattle Pilots had put as much effort into their finances and stadium issues as had gone into their uniforms, things might have worked out differently, and a certain car dealer from Milwaukee might not have acquired the bankrupt Seattle club and gone on to greater things. The Pilots pulled out all the stops: Powder blue uniforms with military style trim, a pilot wing patch on the front of the jersey (the 100th Anniversary patch occupied the left sleeve of all clubs that year), “scrambled eggs” on the visor of the hat, and four bold gold stripes on their blue socks. When the Pilots were suddenly shifted to Milwaukee before the 1970 season, there was not enough time to design and make new uniforms, so the lettering and patch were torn off and replaced with an attractive “BREWERS” in gold and blue. (Curiously the old Pilots uniforms were retained for an additional season).
Over the northern border, the Montreal Expos (R.I.P.) were thinking similarly bold thoughts. They too chose the road blues and added their own innovation: The first multi-colored cap crown, a style which would catch on across baseball a few years later.
The Japanese professional leagues got into the game as well. You can see our Nishitetsu Lions and Chunichi Dragons blue flannels here, as well as our Winnipeg and Evansville minor league jerseys. (And anyone who has a picture of a Newark Co-Pilots road flannel from 1969-71 needs to call me!).
After 1971 and the radical changes that came with polyester double knit uniforms all bets were off, and there was an explosion of color across the professional baseball landscape. But I find the end of the flannel era to be far more interesting because the experiments and innovations still happened in the context of the traditional baseball uniform.